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Fostering inclusivity: The power of assistive music technology

Lopez outlines the current developments in assistive music technology

Mariana Lopez

This column is the second in my series covering aspects of accessibility in the audio industry. Last month, I examined traditional and innovative practices towards accessibility for visually impaired film and television audiences. This time, I’d like to discuss assistive music technology and some of the fantastic work being carried out towards more inclusive music and audio production practices.

I’ll note first that an important link between accessibility and design practice is the concept of Universal Design. This concept stems from a desire to create products and environments free of usability barriers—treating accessibility as integral to their proper functioning. Universal Design champions the idea that products and environments designed to be accessible for people with disabilities will end up benefitting everyone. For example, a ramp might be initially designed to provide access to people using wheelchairs, but they can also benefit those carrying suitcases.

Universal Design is also linked to the Social Model of Disability (which is often used as an alternative or alongside the Medical Model of Disability), which views society as responsible for the barriers that exist for people with disabilities and, as a result, also responsible for the removal of such barriers to provide access to all and work towards equality. It is in this light that I would like to discuss some great initiatives in the sector.

Composition and musical performance initiatives:

The first I’d like to mention are those of the UK national arts charity Drake Music. The aim of Drake Music is to support projects that open up musical creation opportunities to all, by making them accessible to everyone at all levels. Their aim is also to foster collaborations between disabled and non-disabled musicians, in which barriers to music creation are dismantled and the act of making music is at the centre.

One of Drake Music’s projects that caught my attention is the one focused on the use of the Mi.Mu Gloves, which is wearable technology that allows music creation and performance through gesture control, and was developed by a team led by Imogen Heap. This captured my attention originally because I believe not many people associate the use of the Mi.Mu Gloves with accessibility. But exciting work by Kris Halpin, a disabled musician who was finding playing the guitar progressively more challenging, has demonstrated that they can be a gateway towards music-making for all. Kris works in the intersection of accessibility and musical expression by using the Mi.Mu Gloves as a means to continue creating music and performing live as well as contributing to changing perceptions on disability.

Another excellent initiative is that of Digit Music and its Control One device, which is an adaptation of a regular electric wheelchair controller to be used for music composition and performance. The device emerged from a number of workshops with wheelchair users and utilises small joystick movements for creative control, even allowing for the joining up of devices for ensemble performance.

Andre Louis’s work with Native Instruments is an example of how non-disability focused companies can make a difference and increase their user base. Andre is a London-based visually impaired musician and sound designer, who has been working on testing the accessibility features of the KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards. Features include a voiceover system that allows users to navigate controls by describing what is being selected, enabling blind musicians to work independently without assistance.

Sound editing and mixing initiatives:

Uniting all the above examples is their focus on composition and musical performance, but I want to emphasise that this is not the only domain in which research is being carried out. Fundamental tasks such as sound editing and mixing are also crucial when tackling barriers in the industry. In this regard, it is worth noting the research and development work of Atau Tanaka and Adam Parkinson, which has produced the Haptic Wave, a rectangular device that allows visually impaired audio professionals to ‘feel the sound’. Tanaka and Parkinson explain that with digital audio sighted audio engineers have become accustomed to the advantages of ‘seeing’ sound through the waveform display. However, this is not available to visually impaired professionals. The Haptic Wave, replaces ‘seeing’ with ‘feeling’ by allowing users to scrub through their audio files and ‘feel’ the vertical movement of a slider, which indicates the amplitude of the waveform. This allows users to find, for example, excerpts of silence that can be edited out, making the process faster than having to sit through and listen to entire audio files.

That’s it for this month, but I hope I’ve drawn your attention to some of the exciting developments taking place in the world of assistive music technology and its work towards positive change in the audio industry.